Superhero stories are unquestionably powerful, and the fact that they have bled so profusely into Hollywood is testament to this. The 2000s saw a furious spate of superhero movies being released, and even Bollywood managed to get involved, with the brilliant and highly-entertaining Krrish. So why does anyone watch these comic book movies, with their outlandish characters, improbable scenarios, preposterous villains and ridiculous costumes? Quite simply, it is because the superhero stories are like a mythology of our time.
From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Greek myths, all societies have their traditional stories of heroes fighting villains and the moral messages these entail. Superhero stories are no different. Unlike classical storytellers, comic book writers are contractually obligated to write continuous stories, so characters don’t die quite as often as in the Greek myths. The themes contained in the pages of comics are often indicative of the major social issues of the time.
For example, X-Men was first published in 1963 amidst the Civil Rights movement. The comic demonstrates the horrors and injustices of racism and xenophobia, with mutants being persecuted by evil government authorities. Green Lantern and Green Arrow dealt with issues of heroin addiction and Spider-Man was created to be the kind of hero that the brand-new ‘teenage’ social demographic could identify with.
But why do we need to learn about these themes through the medium of men in bizarre costumes? The answer lies in the rich symbolism found in comics. Symbols serve as a shorthand, perhaps a way of ‘dumbing down’ themes, helping young audiences to better identify who the ‘good guys’ are; the men and women clad in ‘heroic’ costumes. Ultimately, overuse of a symbolic or stylistic device resulted in a cliché, and comic books became stagnant, with hundreds of characters and back-stories all vying for the readers’ attention. This led to DC Comics publishing the 12 part series Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, which drastically reduced, simplified and re-ordered the DC universe. The 80s marked the end of the so called ‘Silver Age’ of comics, and with Alan Moore’s re-imagining of Swamp Thing in 1985 and Watchmen appearing a year later, the ‘Graphic Novel’ had been born. Comics had become ‘dark’ and left the mainstream forever.
Films are undergoing a similar process. Iron Man 2 was less successful than its predecessor and barely anyone bothered watching Scott Pilgrim vs the World. This and other recent movies such as The Green Hornet and Kick-Ass are already pastiches of the genre, serving to subvert it with light-hearted B-movie themes and with camp undertones. Cinema-goers will soon face a glut of superhero movies, such as the new adaptation of The Green Lantern, a brand new Spider-Man, Thor, The Avengers, another Wolverine, and a Deadpool spin-off. Nolan’s upcoming The Dark Knight Rises will, in my opinion, be both a paean to and requiem for the costumed hero. After that, it will all be over, with the debris of trampled capes and shattered masks swept out of an Odeon near you.